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The Lone Ranger And Data Integrity

Many IT Pros can relate to the the Lone Ranger. With the aid of but one trusty side kick, the Lone Ranger stands to protect the unsuspecting townsfolk from the wayward derelicts that plagued the American frontier. He also ate bacon three meals a day.

Like the Lone Ranger, IT Pros ride the fast-paced trail of the business environment, protecting key business systems from improper access and malcontent users. We’re often alone in our quest for data integrity, the lone voice standing out against complete and utter data anarchy. And we love bacon!

But I Neeeeeeeeeeeed It

Ok, I maybe overstating the issue slightly. Most users don’t awaken each morning with the hopes of bringing complete and utter data anarchy to our systems. They simply need something that’s beyond the current capability of the system. So they make do as best they can.

Secondary Systems

Some store data in Excel spreadsheets or Access databases (gasp!). Most of these secondary systems start off as a simple way to help one user track certain data. Over time, however, they can grow and spread like wet Gremlins. A second user discovers the existence of the neat new work-around. Then another, and another.

The next thing you know, the single-user, temporary, and unplanned work-around has become a team-level or department-level mission critical system. It’s frequently inaccessible to others who would benefit from the data, it’s difficult to back up, and it’s now yours to support.

All of this leads to disparate systems and silos of data. Maintenance becomes difficult; accurate reporting, impossible.

Getting Creative

Other users get creative with how they store data in the system. They find and exploit areas of the supported system to accomplish what they need to do. Sometimes they shove multiple pieces of data into one column; for example, they store two are three email addresses in the one allotted field. Or worse, they save two completely different types of data in one field; for instance storing a telephone number and an email address in the email address field.

Users can also repurpose an existing column for their own use under certain circumstances. They may put the customer’s email address in the P.O. Box field if they customer doesn’t have a P.O. Box.

Both techniques make producing reliable reports from the nearly impossible. Some of this can be controlled with data validation, but not perfectly. Users can still find ways around most protective measures.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Why, oh why, do they do this to us? Don’t they realize that taking such liberties with data makes it impossible to have consistent and dependable information? Surely they’ve heard “Garbage In, Garbage Out” Oh, but they do it anyway.

But before we lash out and condemn them for making our lives miserable, we should first look in the mirror to see if any of the blame lies with us.

Have their requests for changes to the supported system continually fallen on deaf ears? Are their changes perpetually on priority level D? Have they asked for a newer version of the supported software, but been denied because we’re too busy to test and install it? Do we default to no rather than to yes?

It’s Not Us Against Them

Unfortunately in many organizations, the IT department has an almost antagonistic relationship with the departments and people they support. This is counterproductive, both to the organization and to our own goals. It makes life difficult for everyone.

So, don’t be the Lone Ranger. Reach out and work with users to support their goals. Strive to understand their needs and then look at the technology and processes that may help to fulfill those needs. You won’t be able to solve all of their problems, but building that relationship will help to solve some of your own problems.

Filed under: Business, Consulting, Management, SQLServerPedia Syndication


Posted by Jason E Bacani on 29 September 2010

Good stuff.  Mind you, Lone Rangers can be found among the SQL Server Developers who end up inheriting processes that allow the garbe in, in the first place.  But to make things right, coordinated efforts are best.  Like it's said, "work with users to support their goals" so that way, it's a win-win for all in the organization.

Posted by Joe Webb on 29 September 2010

Yeah, I think all of us tend to be Lone Rangers under certain circumstances or with some users. But things tend to go much better when we hang up our spurs and work with our users.

Posted by David.Poole on 4 October 2010

Yep, Cinderella users go feral.

There are times when the end users want something, the low level IT guys want to supply it but it doesn't fit with the "strategic vision".  Should have gone to Spec Savers.

I don't want to bang the Agile drum to hard but one of the key objectives is to deliver what the business needs today.

Posted by GPO on 4 October 2010

The problem of different units of the organization not understanding others' needs is a huge point.  Does the guy who logged such a poorly worded request deserve to have the job closed summarily? No. Maybe there's a genuine reason why he comes across as arrogant or whatever but unless you can get to know his circumstances he'll always just be that rude guy on level 5. Problem is that in a dysfunctional organization you may not be afforded the luxury of being able to provide good service. I've been instructed many times to deliver slipshod work just to get the job ticked off, and I know it's not quite what the user really needs.

Posted by Jason Brimhall on 4 October 2010

I agree - try to foster good relationships and help the business grow together.

Posted by Jason Brimhall on 4 October 2010

I agree - try to foster good relationships and help the business grow together.

Posted by Joe Webb on 4 October 2010

Agreed, David. Agile or not, we one of our goals should be to get users to view IT as a part of operations rather an obstacle to get around.

Posted by Joe Webb on 4 October 2010

Yeah, when poor results are institutionalized as you've described, that's tough. It's a cycle that just feeds on itself. You do it poorly the first time, so you have to do it again. Pretty soon your users don't ask you to do it; they circumvent your department and then you've got one of the messes I described in the blog post.

Posted by Joe Webb on 4 October 2010

I hope you're a CIO somewhere, Jason! :)

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